The time of the Choosing had arrived.
Eli woke with fear numbing his limbs. Eli could hear Jonah breathing heavily in the dark.
Jonah was too young to understand the significance of the day. He didn’t know that only one of them would attend the celebration after the vote. He knew only that the town was covered with streamers and floral arrangements and that his big brother had been exceptionally nice to him recently.
Eli, on the other hand, knew exactly what was coming and he knew exactly what he had to do. It wasn’t that Eli hated Jonah. Jonah was too trusting and adoring to inspire such dark emotion. Eli understood that stakes, though. This wasn’t his first Choosing.
It wasn’t even his second.
He’d been around long enough—twelve years in just a few months—to understand what needed to be done. He was old enough to understand that he was expected to shoulder the responsibility that the village elders were unwilling to accept. If—no,when he made it to adulthood (he had promised himself that these sacrifices wouldn’t be wasted), he would change things.
Across the room, Jonah mumbled in his sleep, something about plums. Eli thought about their trip to the General Store earlier in the week. Jonah, always easily excitable, had almost tipped over a display at the front entrance.
“Jonah! Look where you’re going!” Eli shouted, grabbing him by the arm.
“No harm done, fellas,” the elderly proprietor said. “All is well.”
“Sorry, sir,” Eli said, nudging Jonah. Jonah, oblivious to social niceties, just stared at the old man and tucked his thumb into his mouth. “He’s sorry, too,” Eli said.
“I can see that.” The old man winked. He plucked a couple of plums from the top of a carefully stacked pyramid. “Would you boys like a plum?”
Jonah popped the thumb out of his mouth and held out his hand, but Eli swatted at it.
“Oh, no, sir. We couldn’t. We don’t have any extra money.”
“My treat,” said the man. “Consider it a reward for two brothers looking out for one another during Choosing Week.”
He peered at them closely, taking in their matching auburn hair and blue-green eyes. “You are brothers, yes?”
Eli didn’t like the eagerness in the old man’s expression.
“Your parents must be busy preparing for the big day.”
Behind the old man’s smile, Eli could sense teeth and a predatory desire for blood. “Yes, sir.” He wanted to grab Jonah and run away from this man, but he stayed in place. Every town resident got to speak before the Choosing and Eli didn’t want to give this man any reason to speak against him.
“So polite,” the old man murmured, with an air of mild disappointment. “Go on, then. Take your plums and get on with your shopping. Your mother will be angry at you for taking so long.”
The old man’s eyes twinkled like broken glass and his coyote grin widened at the flush that rushed to Eli’s cheeks at the thought. He placed a plum in each of their palms and returned to his place by the door where he could watch the preparations on the street.
Jonah looked at Eli with wide questioning eyes.
“Go ahead,” Eli said, but he placed his own plum into one of the pockets that covered his jacket. Jonah bit into his plum with his perfectly straight baby teeth. Juice ran in rivulets down his round chin and dripped onto his shirt.
Mom won’t like that, Eli thought. He felt a moment of relief, followed immediately by intense shame. “Careful, Jonah,” he reminded his brother, wiping at the stain with his handkerchief. Jonah continued to gnaw at the pale flesh of the plum while Eli collected the items on his mother’s shopping list.
*8/4/17 prompt: opening, a ripe plum, younger sibling